Clark Kent, Not Superman

In my post yesterday, The Relativity of Exercise, I pointed out the misleading, unacknowledged bias of the article and perhaps the scientific study it presented, that it compared the effects of a lack of exercise on heart health to the effects of fanatical exercise, and then normalized the fanatical level as being “in shape” and something to strive for. I asked the question that the reporter should have asked – can comparable heart health results be obtained with less intensive exercise?

One of the nastiest parts of the Obesity Panic bandwagon is how extreme and fanatical “regimens” (be they eating, exercise, supplements or what have you) are gaining attention because they appear to stand in opposition to the Fat Tide. No action is too extreme if it claims to be fighting “Teh Fatz” and disciplining those lard-asses into shape. These questionable measures are fundamentally unsustainable. More perniciously, they create the illusion that anything less than this or that level of extreme exercise/dieting/eating/exertion is inadequate to make a person “healthy.” They are usually promoted by operations that stand to make money off the poor saps who undertake the effort, or else are the personally obsession of self-declared “experts” out on the Intratubz who want the rest of humanity to join their crusade against whatever.

Just when I’m ready to head-desk myself into unconsciousness to escape Teh Stoopid, I come across a lovely, scientifically and medically solid bit of research that validates common sense. I came across this article on the BBC, “Inactivity ‘dominant influence’ on women’s heart risk,” which reports on a study performed in Australia that looked at a huge sample size (30,000) of women from different age cohorts (born in the 1920s, 1940s and 1970s) to identify factors that affect the risk of heart disease in women. Unlike the narrow study done by the French researchers on senior men’s heart health, this is meaningful for a female population as a whole. I encourage you to read the whole article, but here are the main takeaways:

  • For women under the age of 30, the single greatest threat to their heart health is smoking. It is more damaging than any other risk factor. So, especially if you are a woman under 30, the best thing you can do for your heart is refrain from smoking.
  • For women over 30, the single greatest threat to their heart health is inactivity. It is more damaging to their health than obesity.  Let’s say that again – inactivity is a greater threat to heart health than obesity. Full Stop. Period.
  • Activity sufficient to reduce heart risk BY HALF (that’s 50%, kids) is 30 to 45 minutes per day, five days out of seven.
  • Other risk factors – the article names smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol – for middle aged and elderly women may be less damaging, but they also need to be treated.

So, if you are female (the study does not cover men, so cannot be applied identically to that population segment, though intuition says what’s sauce for the goose is probably sauce for the gander), you will do the most good for yourself and your heart if you don’t smoke (preferably because you never started, but it’s never too late to quit) and you do take a brisk walk most days of the week.

No need for Insanity workouts, marathons, lifting heavy, HIIT training, conditioning regimens or any of that folderal. If you want to do that stuff, go for it. I’m all about encouraging people to get out and move. It’s good for your body, it’s good for your mental state, blah, blah, blah, all the blather you hear on the TV when some sleek 20-something is burbling on about the latest fad. You’re an adult, do as you like.

My point is that far less effort will get most ordinary middle-aged, busy, fat women (like me) really excellent outcomes. Obesity will not prevent you from getting a stronger heart (and legs and lungs and vascular system and spine, etc.). Activity is good for every female body regardless of weight. Moderate activity, like my good old stand-by the brisk walk, has a really low risk of injury, unlike the extreme superman styles pushed by the media. Sure, you can do more if that brings you joy. It’s your life and you should do with it as you see fit.

Let me take a second to forestall a common distortion when recounting activity studies, one that was front and center on the article covering the French senior men’s heart health. The entire article was prefaced with an inappropriate photo of an elderly man doing exercise with the caption “No Excuses.” The message conveyed is “Even old farts can be improved with exercise so you have no excuse not to do exactly as we say you should!” Someone could take my statement above that obesity won’t prevent you from making your heart healthier and twist it around to say “You obese bitches better shut up and start moving. Maybe you wouldn’t be so faaaaatttt if you actually exercised!” That’s not what I am saying, though it is what the mainstream diet and fitness industry wants you to hear.

What I am saying is carrying an amount of weight that the culture tries to pathologize sucks because everyone and the doorpost won’t accept that your body fat in and of itself isn’t the cause of all of your life’s problems. What sucks more is developing various ailments that do harm to your heart. I can’t make the busybodies go away. I can do things that make my heart stronger and my life easier. Regular, moderate activity is one of those things. I know it from great medical studies like the one in the BBC article and I know it from my own lived experience. I don’t have to be Superman to achieve this. I can be mild-mannered Clark Kent.  I can walk by myself. I can walk with the Spousal Unit. I can skip a day and do a longer walk the next. I can use my stationary bike instead if the weather is nasty (too hot/too cold), though I really prefer strolling through the neighborhood. I can jog for a block and pretend I’m winning the gold in an Olympic marathon (go me!). I can put activity on hold while I work on a really pressing project, and then get back to it to walk off the project stress.


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